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Women doctors and a time less accepting

By Dr. Jane Knapp

For some both inside and outside Children’s Mercy it may be old news, but there are always people surprised to learn that Children’s Mercy was founded by two women doctors in 1897. Yes, that’s right: doctors. In 1897. They were Dr. Alice Berry Graham, a dentist, and Dr. Katharine Berry Richardson, a physician. They were also sisters. Siblings that is, not nuns.

In today’s world, their story of building a hospital “for all children everywhere” is a source of pride for our hospital and community. But that wasn’t always the case.In the early days, the sisters withstood professional rejection, endured public ridicule and lived with the threat of financial ruin. This didn’t deter them however, from railing against the social injustices of the time that left children orphaned, impoverished, disabled and sick. Nor did it deter them from giving everything they had to change the plight of children and to look for friends in the community who instead of criticizing them were willing to pitch in and help. When I think about their accomplishments and the fortitude it took to do it, I personally feel inept in comparison. Yet, their dedication and perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds never fails to inspire. In time for National Woman Physicians Day 2019, I propose a historical journey back to 1910 when both Alice and Katharine were still alive, to imagine how the world of women physicians might have looked through Katharine Richardson’s eyes and to feel for a moment what they were up against.

In 1910, women physicians mourned the passing of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman medical school graduate in the United States. They recall that medical schools were firmly closed to women at the time Elizabeth Blackwell applied. They know that she was finally accepted to the Geneva Medical School in New York when the all-male student body voted her admission – some say, as a joke. They feel pride that Elizabeth Blackwell’s motivation to become a doctor was validated when she graduated at the top of her class.

Dr. Katharine Berry RichardsonIt is very likely that Katharine Richardson reminisces at Dr. Blackwell’s passing, remembering the three months after medical school that she trained at the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children founded by Dr. Blackwell. She would have appreciated that the New York Infirmary provided education and training opportunities for women when they were practically nonexistent otherwise. (Fast forward through history, the first National Women Physicians Day February 3, 2016, is celebrated on the 195th anniversary of Elizabeth Blackwell’s birth.)

In 1910, there are 7,000 women practicing medicine in the United States (5 percent of the physician workforce) and another 1,200 in medical school. That seems promising but, the 1910 Flexner Report heralds at least one unwelcome change. Women physicians like Dr. Richardson discuss whether many of their alma maters will close in the wake of Flexner’s recommended reforms. A look in the crystal ball at 1915 shows that their fears have been realized when only 2.9% of medical school graduates are women. Flexner prefers to believe that the decline in women’s enrollment following the report is due to a lack of desire on their part to become physicians or lack of demand for women physicians, rather than diminished opportunity. The impact of the Flexner Report, though recognized as the birth of revolutionary reforms in the advancement of medical education, had long lasting effects on limiting training opportunities for women and minorities. Preference for male students and quota systems persisted to the 1970’s.

The first Clinical Congress of Surgeons of North America is held in Chicago in 1910. Dr. Richardson is well established as a busy surgeon with considerable experience and skill. Many of her patients are children with cleft lip/cleft palate. She provides care not for personal gain but to fulfill the mission which will later be carved into the cornerstone of the hospital on Independence Avenue as a place for “sick and crippled children to be forever non-sectarian, nonlocal and for those who cannot pay.” The meeting of surgeons in Chicago is the forerunner of the American College of Surgeons in 1913. The first woman member, Florence West Duckering, is admitted that year. Dr. Richardson would be recognized as a member of the American College of Surgeons in 1931.

Washington State votes for women’s suffrage in 1910 – an indication that the Suffrage Movement is gaining momentum. Katharine Richardson, outspoken as ever, is an ardent supporter of women’s rights. The movement culminates in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.

Ever innovators, Alice and Katharine open the hospital’s own public school in 1910. The school provides education to children who have not previously been able to attend school because of physical disabilities, poverty or both. It is aimed squarely at their “mental development” in a holistic approach to caring for mind and body. 

On top of everything else, by 1910 Katharine knows that her beloved sister, Alice who has been living with cancer for six years, is in failing health. Katharine is caring for a hospital filled to capacity with sick children and the need to constantly raise money to keep the hospital afloat. She is far from immune from the life stresses that we all face. Soon Alice resigns her position and moves to Los Angeles for medical care. Katharine, now alone, must dig deep and find the energy and tenacity to carry on without her sister. The final blow leading to the darkest days of her life comes in 1913 when Alice dies.

The issues for women in medicine have changed since 1910 but the inspiration to be drawn from the determination of Alice and Katharine in their life’s work remains as relevant as ever. It’s mind boggling to think of the number of lives they impacted directly and indirectly through the founding of Children’s Mercy. Certainly, in a much smaller way, one of the things I have learned through my career in medicine is that we are never totally aware of the sometimes long-lasting impact we have on others. Let it be for good.

One last thought: legacy. It’s a word that gets tossed around a lot today. Sure Alice and Katharine left a legacy, an important and enduring one. Their legacy was created however, through their selfless work on behalf of children, not because it was something that they planned for or dreamed about. It must also be acknowledged that their work was only the beginning – a catalyst. They were the inspiration for thousands of others to join them along the way to keep the mission of caring for all children alive. It is good to celebrate why we’re here.


Learn more about the history of Children's Mercy